I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The State of the Union speech

The State of the Union speech last night was just a slightly more elegant and wonkish version of the same speech which the President has been giving over and over and over for the last four years or so. I have just a few observations about it:

There is something quite disturbing about the way in which Bush has taken to telling us in almost every speech he gives now the type of criticism of him we should and should not be making. It is so plainly not the role of the President to tell us what types of debates we ought to be having, and given his history of civility and those of his henchman – from John McCain’s black daughter to the metal illness of Gore, McCain and Howard Dean to the way in which the language of treason and surrender are tossed about like fun little playthings -- he is particularly ill-suited to dispense those sermons. But that doesn't stop him:

But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone. And our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger.

To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another. And I will do my part.

And then, one paragraph later:

We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life.

And a little later:

There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat. . . .

But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil.

So, to recap: We must have civil and respectful debate, and that’s why I want to point out that anyone who disagrees with my terrorism and foreign policies is in favor of surrendering to our enemies.

The award for most ambitious statement in the speech would have to go to this passage:

Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world.

Is that really our foreign policy goal now - "the end of tyranny in our world"? This sounds a lot like something which third-grade students or beauty pageant contestants say when asked what their greatest hope for the world is. It also sounds like something which justifies and, if followed, guarantees endless wars. And that was followed-up with this:

Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction.

Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror.

The examples which disprove these assertions are too numerous to list, but of the 8 countries which are known or widely suspected to have tested nuclear weapons, five of them -- the U.S., France, Great Britain, India and Israel -- were democracies at the time, while the sixth (Russia) is now a democracy and the seventh (Pakistan) is one of the U.S.’s closest allies. The most destructive and potent weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of democracies, not dictatorships.

And the bit about democracies "join[ing] the fight against terror" is a rather audacious claim to make given the democratic election in the Palestinian authority last week placing Hamas in charge of the government, as well as the Purple Finger elections in Iraq which have installed Iran-loving Shiite mullahs in charge of that country, not to mention the truly disastrous results which would accrue if democratic elections were held in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan.

And we can't forget about the New Adolph Hitler (of the Southern Hemisphere), Hugo Chavez, who, regardless of what else one might want to say about him, has the support of Venezuelans and was elected democratically several times.

The idea that democracy is some sort of elixir to the world’s ills and a guarantor of the peace is pure delusion, even if we could succeed in installing it around the world at a price worth paying. It is hard to tell whether this idea that we are going to install democracy everywhere really is our foreign policy goal or is just the only remaining theory to justify our invasion and occupation of Iraq, but either way, it is a false and quite destructive doctrine.

After the stirring tributes to democracy, we returned to one of the most manipulative rhetorical tricks to which we were subjected for several years -- that is the constant claim that we were fighting "the terrorists" in Iraq; therefore, to oppose the war was to favor surrender to the terrorists (that's an example of the respectful and civil debate we're allowed to have). That's the deceit which, more than anything else, led to that most humiliating fact that 70% of Americans still believed, even 6 months after we invaded Iraq, that Saddam personally participated in the planning of 9/11.

Bush finally admitted a couple of months ago that the vast, vast majority of people whom we are fighting in Iraq are not "terrorists" at all, but rather, are nationalists who oppose our occupation and/or who want to preserve the status quo. That momentary outbreak of forced candor has retreated and we are now back to the old, reliable deceit of "fighting Iraqis = fighting terrorists":

Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously.

They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder.

Their aim is to seize power in Iraq and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world.

By definition, then, anyone who opposes the war in Iraq or who favors a withdraw is someone who wants to surrender to the terrorists.

I think it’s fair to say that these are two least heart-felt sentiments in the speech:

The great people of Egypt have voted in a multiparty presidential election, and now their government should open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism. . . .

Saudi Arabia has taken the first steps of reform. Now it can offer its people a better future by pressing forward with those efforts.

I'm sure that democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are right around the corner and that we'll be doing everything possible as a nation to encourage those developments. After all, nothing could be better for U.S. national security interests than getting rid of the loyal allies who run those countries with an iron fist and turning them over to the democratically elected U.S.-hating Muslim religious fanatics as soon as possible. And as we're fighting for democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (and Pakistan?), we should keep this in mind:

Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens.

Give credit where it's due. There's no denying that the President is certainly right about that - for example, the democracy in Iraq looks like a Shiite theocracy tied to and controlled by Iran, and the democracy in the Palestinian Authority looks like a terrorist camp. But at least we arrived at those places democratically.

And then, finally, we come to the most manipulative part of the speech - the stirring defense of eavesdropping on Al Qaida and the grotesque and transparent exploitation of 9/11 to justify the President's law-breaking:

It is said that prior to the attacks of September the 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to Al Qaida operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late.

So to prevent another attack -- based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute -- I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected Al Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America.

That Bush can continue to justify the NSA eavesdropping program by making appeals to the importance of eavesdropping – as though anyone opposes eavesdropping – is rather astounding, and reflects a real failure on the part of the media and Democrats to make clear to the public the actual issue raised by this scandal.

The Administration has always claimed that they could not have been reasonably expected to prevent 9/11, and I’ve always been sympathetic to that argument, believing that no real blame could be fairly ascribed to the Administration for its failure to detect and stop 9/11. But based on the claims they’ve been making lately – that they could have stopped 9/11 had they eavesdropped on the conversations between the Al Qaeda terrorists in the U.S. and their foreign contacts -- it’s almost necessary to re-think that view, since nothing stopped them from doing exactly that. They obviously could have eavesdropped on those conversations within the FISA structure (or, according to them, by invoking their Article II inherent authority to eavesdrop outside of it), and their argument that they could have stopped 9/11 had they eavesdropped almost amounts to an admission that the 9/11 attacks were their fault.

Nonetheless, this rhetorical manipulation in the President’s speech only underscores the fact that priority number one at the first day of the NSA hearings is to make clear that this scandal has nothing to do with eavesdropping and everything to do with whether the President has the right to act without being constrained by the law.

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